That Jones piano sound

So, give a listen to this:

Norah Jones's first album was based in this sound... brushes, that gentle, precise piano touch... Whatever you may want to think of Ms. Jones, her music reached to millions and her sound is immediately recognisable, something jazz musicians have strived for since the days of Buddy Bolden. I'm not entering into the discussion of whether Ms. Jones plays jazz... and I'm getting away from my point.

The point is... that's not Ms. Jones. It's actually Mr. Jones. Mr. Hank Jones, who celebrates his 90th birthday today. The clip comes from one of the hundreds of sessions he's done since he started his recording career in 1944, in this case for Wes Montgomery and his So Much Guitar! album (Riverside, 1961, with Ron Carter on bass.)

Of course, Jones's merit has little to do with his being an uncanny and incidental forebear to Lady Norah, and we've had him for so long that it's not so easy to give a proper assessment of his achievements. When he moved to New York and started recording with Hot Lips Page, Art Tatum - his only real idol - was king... Bud Powell and Monk were still with Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins respectively. In 1947, the year Powell and Monk debuted in Blue Note records, Jones recorded his first solo album, Urbanity, for Norman Granz, a recording infused with the new sounds of Nat King Cole and even Tristano. Then came the fifties, with his unofficial "in-house" position at Savoy records and his very many sessions elsewhere (everywhere, more like, Coleman Hawkins and Al Cohn were two regular employers.) Then came the sixties, with his job with the CBS and still his many recordings, including a ragtime album (This is ragtime now! for ABC-Paramount) in 1964, years before The Sting. Then, the seventies, with his return to full-time jazz practice with the Great Jazz Trio (mainly with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, see picture) at the ripe age of 60! (A bit of trivia: the first solo ever played in public by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra was his.)

Since then, another thirty years have gone by, and this man, whose approach puts sincerity before innovation has continued doing what he's always done, adding to and polishing his style, a style so familiar for so long by such an ubiquitous musician, that one has to wonder whether its apparent lack of originality is only due to its being so central to our idea of mainstream jazz.

Recently Joe Lovano and Roberta Gambarini - a truly phenomenal singer - have benefited from that Jones piano sound. It was quite something to hear Jones in London with Lovano four years ago, when the audience at the Barbican gave him the loudest round of applause, and justly so. As for the collaboration with Ms. Gambarini, as a singer she has benefitted from Jones's prowess as an accompanying pianist, and she, in turn, not only has delivered the goods as a singer, but has also become a sort of guardian angel to Mr. Jones after a couple of serious health scares, as it was explained recently in Down Beat. A second part to their CD You Are There (EmArcy) seems to be on the cards (as a quartet instead of a duo) for as soon as the end of the year.

I have met Mr. Jones in person twice, in 1996 and 1997, back in San Sebastián, when I was a budding journalist. My memories of our two meetings are blurry, but two things stand out: his graciousness towards a poorly-informed hack who spoke an appalling English, and the concert he gave in 1997 as a duo with Nicholas Payton at the Town Hall, as a last-minute substitute for Tete Montoliu, who would sadly die shortly thereafter. The duo's lack of proper preparation was probably the reason for the tension that kept both musicians on their toes, ready and alert.

In 2004 the Dutch TV did a very nice programme with Jones. You can watch it here (in English, with Dutch subtitles.)

So here's to Mr. Jones in his 90th birthday. Happy birthday!


Hoy Hank Jones cumple 90 años. En el próximo número de Cuadernos de Jazz escribo ampliamente sobre este pianista.

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